Sunday, November 30, 2014

Belated Thanksgiving 2014 / Sunday morning reflections

This week's been up and down. Most of it comes from feeling homesick because it's Thanksgiving today. As I explained to the students this week, Thanksgiving is quite like the Korean Chuseok holiday: It's a time for families to gather and enjoy spending time together. It also focuses on being thankful for what you have. And what you have isn't so much what you possess as it is about intangible things like family, love, and friendship.

I got to see Dave Sperling of Dave's ESL Cafe speak in Daejeon yesterday. He said, "You're living the lives you want.  You're in Korea, after all." A wave of happiness went through me when he said that, for it's something that, obvious though it is, I sometimes forget that coming to Korea was about more than taking a job. Coming here meant learning a new culture and leaving home. It meant getting--and using--a passport for the first time. And it meant having to keep an open mind about things.

Sometimes one needs to hear the obvious. Living and teaching here is what I want to do. What other explanation exists for having signed a fourth contract? At another point, Dave said, "If I'd known [doing Dave's ESL Cafe] would be so hard, I wouldn't have done it." Not me. If I had known in August 2011 that the next three years would mean traveling all around this peninsula and Asia, meeting countless wonderful people, feeling better and worse than ever, and becoming a better teacher, then yes, I would've done it. Korea continues to be a wonderful time. Some days go better than others. Living as an expatriate is a full time job. But even so, it's the best I've ever had.

I'd like to give thanks to
  • Family. Words fail to express the importance of family. I miss all of you very much.
  • Friends. I've met friends from around the world here and that probably wouldn't have happened--not to this extent, anyway--if I hadn't gotten on that plane. You know who you are. Thanks for being here and for all the things you've mentioned about your home countries. 
  • The students. The Korean school system pushes them to the limit, but they keep coming back for more. The longer I stay here, the more I feel for them. I often wonder how I feel in their shoes.
  • Coteachers. Thanks for all of your help with understanding the school system and teaching our classes.
  • Planes, planes, and automobiles. Korea has an excellent transportation system. One can go anywhere at nearly any time.
  • Anyone who comes here and reads this blog.
This will be my final Thanksgiving in Korea. It's getting to be time for me to move on, for some educational and work opportunities have come up in the USA. The final Dispatches from Gangwon will come in August of 2015.


Though I'm not Southern, this song's a favorite for what it says about the USA and how we should try to preserve nature.
Lynyrd Skynyrd - All I Can Do Is Write About It

Actually, though it's about the USA, those lines about "the concrete slowly creeping" apply to Korea as well? Other than Shin Joong-hyun's legendary "Beautiful Mountains and Rivers"? 


Previous posts about Thanksgiving

#1: Happy Thanksgiving! 2011.

* Ironically, Thanksgiving signals the start of the crazed Christmas shopping season. And Black Friday and its sales are on the next day. Strange.


Last, but not least, thanks to Cal and J for being here in 2013-2014. Rock on!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Proving that we can eat spicy food

From journal entry since revised:

4 September 2014 – Went down to dinner and ended up going to a new Chinese restaurant in town. I ate jjajangbap and R ordered jjamppong noodles. Both dishes tasted good!
R ordered the spicy version of the jjamppong because she didn’t want the owner to think that she, a foreign woman, couldn’t handle spicy food. She wanted to prove herself and to not further the Korean assumption that foreigners can’t/won’t/don’t eat spicy foods. Second, she didn’t want to set a precedent for future visits where she’d always get the less-spicy version of the dish.

This changed prompted a conversation about Korean perceptions of foreigners for a bit before we moved on to talking about how the school day went for each of us. The conversation about spiciness and precedence stayed with me, which is why I’m recording it here. The owner of the restaurant seemed to assume that R wanted the less spicy version and, judging from her brusque manner, wanted us to make up our minds faster than we did. When we actually had to tell her twice that, yes, we wanted the spicy jjamppong because she talked over us when we ordered the first time. We’d ordered and she’d said some rapid-fire Korean back at us. We caught enough words to know that she was telling us the dish was spicy and she’d make the less spicy one for us. But that wasn’t the food we’d come for.

Spicy food is a sticking point for both of us, for while we do eat it, we don’t care to eat it all the time. And for my part, I always wonder about this, because whenever spicy food is on the menu, I feel as though I’d better eat it, lest I get labeled with not being able to handle spicy foods. And possibility of being told, “Oh, but you don’t like spicy things, so we ordered you something else.” Lest any readers think I’m worrying too much or too irrationally, what I just described—the “one and done” assumption—can and does happen here. Many EPIK friends have related similar stories to me.

And I don’t want to sound worrisome or act like Koreans want to paint western foreigners into a corner. Goodness knows that the world has enough stereotypes and misconceptions about Koreans. No, the idea here is whether or not R and I, Western foreign teachers here, have to prove our culinary chops to Korean people, particularly with:
  • Using chopsticks
  • Eating spicy food
  • Eating kimchi (which is spicy, but even so…)
During the time here, I’ve alternated between two views:
  • There is no need to prove anything. I like what I like, and that’s that. As I like to tell the students, there are 300 million people in America from all different ethnic groups. There isn’t really a standard “American taste.” Not to digress, but I also hesitate to say, “Americans do…”
  • It’s best to go along with things and not make a fuss…especially in this small town. Or, for that matter, anywhere else. Being the noisy customer is not for me.
19 November 2014/extra notes:

I mentioned the “proving” bit above because that’s what we and others have experienced in our time here. Let me emphasize that this mostly small-town­ Korea…areas that haven’t had much contact with foreigners. And the old ideas about foreigners not eating spicy food or Korean food being too spicy tend to persist here because of that lack of contact. We get that.

But then, I can’t worry about whether or not ordering spicy chicken breaks down the idea that foreigners don’t eat spicy chicken. And I can’t worry about turning down a spicy thing…people will think what they want. I won’t be the only foreigner they meet. In sum, for those of you who think about whether or not you should prove yourself worthy of jjamppong, well, just eat it if you want to. 

What these two foods look like:

Jjajangbap [Black bean sauce/stew with rice. Picture:
Note: Bap means rice. I've had this dish with chopped vegetables in the rice. It's also come with a fried egg on top. Some restaurants do that. Also, jjajangmyeon means jjajang with noodles [myeon] instead of rice. 

Finally, this is the unofficial dish of "Black Day," which is a sort of Singles Day for Korea. Many single people from all over Korea eat jjajang on 14 April every year.

Jjamppong [Chinese/Korean spicy seafood noodle soup. Picture:]

Note: This dish took a long time to build a taste for.


Veruca Salt - "Don't Make Me Prove It"
"Words won't do/words won't do it"

Television - Prove It

"Just the facts"

Monday, November 17, 2014

Screen time: Me versus the students

Coteacher: So, how much time do you spend on your computer?
EPIK teacher: Hmmm…maybe 6 hours a day?
Class: Whoa! 
Coteacher: Really? What do you do?
EPIK teacher: Everything. Lesson planning, shopping, sports news, email…
[Coteacher and class nod] 
--Demonstration lesson video at an EPIK workshop, Yangyang, circa 2012.

I’ve written about phones and “screen time” on here before, yet…lately the idea of comparing my screen time to the students came to mind. It wouldn’t be right to complain about something others do when I do it, so let’s take a look at how the numbers compare. Bear in mind that this is completely unscientific...

I started with the overly cynical and unrealistic idea that students spend every spare moment on their phones. And how many spare moments do they have? Let’s see: There 10 minutes between classes, 60 minutes for lunch, 20 minutes for cleaning time, and 60 more minutes for the dinner hour at school. Considering the hours between 8:30am and 7pm, the timetable looks like this:

Breaks between classes (6 @ 10 minutes each)
Lunch break
Dinner break
Cleaning time
200 minutes (3 hours, 20 minutes)

And me?
Breakfast: Emails and blogs
School: Planning, research, emails
After school: Emails, videos, music


Well then. We both spent a lot of time in front of computers or phones...but to be realistic, there's no way the students can spend all of their time in front of computers or phones. It's impossible. It only looks that way sometimes. And as the cliche goes, looks can be deceiving. I probably spend more time in front of screens than the students do. It'd be good to remember that.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Test day hath arrived

Another short one:

Like I wrote yesterday, the big College Scholastic Ability Test/College entrance test day is today. The Korea Joongang Daily ran this little article about it today. Here's something that caught my eye:
Airplanes will be banned from flying over exam locations for 25 minutes from 1:10 p.m. during the English listening portion of the exam. Cars will be banned from a 200-meter (650-foot) radius from test sites. [NEWS1]
Some thoughts on this:

  1. Never have I ever heard an airplane flying over head when I was in or around Seoul. I can't recall even seeing an airplane flying overhead either.
  2. I'd known about flights getting diverted, but didn't know it happened during the English portion. 
  3. Again, not to harp on it, but I do wish the students well. Their experience is worlds apart from my experience with the ACT ~10 years ago. I (and many other American teens), apart from a couple of ACT-prep workshops, no after-school classes, and no cram sessions. The Korean kids, on the other hand, stand against a whole culture that pushes a high score and considers the CSAT the moment in teenage life. Pressure, indeed.
  4. And on the other side: "Businesses capitalizing on free time after CSAT." Mother-daughter surgeries? What a strange message, though: "Don't worry about the lines on your face from all that stress! We'll straighten your face out now. And you can go with your mom!"
  5. How many students will go to special schools to study and take the test again?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Yesterday, today, and especially tomorrow

Yesterday was Peppero Day, the "holiday" for Peppero sticks. They're popular gifts for everyone.

Today's The Day Before the College Entrance Test. It's 1:30pm and all of the students are gone now. The middle school kids had a half day of classes and then got sent home.

And tomorrow's The Test. The big one. Students have killed themselves over this one. Those poor kids. I wish them well.

Korea Joongang Daily: "Students sacrifice year to ‘study again’ for test"